Last offseason, Bruce Arians was on the brink of retiring from coaching; now he’s the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Whether Arians left Pittsburgh willingly or was given a nudge after the 2011 season is debatable, but the 37-year coaching vet was seriously considering hanging up the whistle. Then he came to the realization that he’s a coaching “lifer” and joined the Indianapolis staff. Chuck Pagano’s health issues thrust Arians into a more prominent role, and his 9-3 record as the interim head coach earned him Coach of the Year honors—and that elusive spot on the NFL’s head coaching radar.
Arians’ previous head coaching experience came at Temple University in the mid-80s but he’s worked in the NFL for 20 years, coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers with nine years of play-calling experience as well. He’s already indicated he’ll handle those duties in Arizona “until I can find someone who is going to do it better than me… I haven’t found him yet.”
Because Arians is once again following Ken Whisenhunt—he succeeded him as offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and now replaces him in Arizona—there won’t be a dramatic change to the Cardinals’ scheme; Arians acknowledged as much in his first Arizona press conference, though he added that the offense had “evolved” in the years after Whisenhunt left Pittsburgh for the desert.
Arians will also have the original architect of his offense at his disposal, with long-time NFL coach Tom Moore joining the Cardinals staff as an assistant. Arians learned the basis of the offense he runs while working with Moore in Cleveland.
Key to the Cardinals’ offensive success will be the quarterback play. Arians was Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach during his first three years in the league, helped develop Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and worked with Andrew Luck last season. He’ll experience a bit of a talent drop-off in Arizona, though he believes he acquired his starting quarterback when the Cards added Drew Stanton this offseason.
“Drew knows the offense,” Arians said in a published report. “If he is our guy, I am comfortable.”
Stanton did spend last season with Arians in Indianapolis, so there’s some familiarity there. And while Stanton isn’t Manning, Big Ben or Luck, in Arizona all he has to be is better than Kevin Kolb or John Skelton.
Stanton also needs to be durable, because Arians quarterbacks tend to get hit; only once in his nine seasons as an offensive coordinator have his quarterbacks been sacked less than 40 times, and his teams have given up an average of 44 sacks per season.
Arizona’s line surrendered 58 sacks last season, but Arians indicated that with Levi Brown returning after missing last season due to injury he believes he has enough talent to work with. Arians also has a high draft pick and a deep draft class of offensive linemen, plus his offensive coordinator, Harold Goodwin, was his offensive line coach in Indianapolis last season.
One reason Arians teams tend to give up sacks is that they don’t shy away from taking the home run shot. Arians said he has six deep plays in every game plan, and he isn’t afraid to use them. “Possession time doesn’t mean crap,” Arians said. “Production time… we’re looking for a point a minute.”
From this the perception has developed—especially in Pittsburgh—that Arians doesn’t like to run the ball. But he coached the running backs in Kansas City to two top-five rushing finishes, and his Steeler teams ranked higher in rushing than passing two of his four years there.
“If you can’t pass it, you’re dead, you lost,” Arians has said. “You better be able to score points, and sometimes you can set up the run with the passing.”
All the throwing is good news for Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and Andre Roberts, though it would still require Stanton to be a better quarterback than we’ve seen to date. Arians offenses don’t tend to feature the tight end, so take the offseason hype surrounding Rob Housler with a grain of salt.
When Arians took the Arizona job he expressed excitement about Ryan Williams; then he added former Steeler Rashard Mendenhall via free agency. With the offensive focus on the passing game and the o-line a work in progress the fantasy pickings will be slim for one back, let alone a job share. Given that Mendenhall is a known quantity to Arians and Williams hasn’t been able to stay healthy, look for Rashard to get the first opportunity—but expectations for both should be relatively limited.
Ultimately, Arians’ offenses have produced points—but he’s also had the benefit of elite quarterback play for most of his time calling plays. Stanton (or Brian Hoyer or any rookie Arizona drafts) doesn’t project to be at that level, but knowledge of the system and a target like Fitz could give the Cards an offensive boost. After the past couple of seasons, any boost would be welcome.